Let's face it: nobody likes getting shots. The main pain point is the needle—it's scary, it's pointy, and people are afraid of it (I'll admit, I'm no fan of needles myself). But there is another way! "Needle-free" injection technology allows many shots to go in with no needle at all. Here's how it works, and some video of needle-free tech in action...including in a Batman movie.

Kids Getting Shots Without Crying

We've all been around kids when it's time to get a shot—it's no fun. There's wailing, there's bargaining, and there's a futile attempt to make it fun by applying a cartoon-character bandaid at the end. But here's a video that blew my mind: here are kids in Cambodia receiving vaccinations from a needle-free device called the PharmaJet Stratis. And they are not freaking out in the slightest. The first two kids clearly know what shots are and aren't happy about them—until they get the shot, and then actually smile. Check this out:

How the Technology Works

There are various kinds of needle-free injectors out there and in development, but let's talk first about the Stratis device shown above, which is being advanced by PharmaJet in collaboration with PATH, a global health nonprofit organization based in Seattle. I've held the Stratis, and it feels like a medium-sized flashlight. A small-tipped disposable syringe containing the injectable vaccine (or other injectable pharmaceutical) is inserted by a health worker into the top end of the handheld injector. The injector is "powered" by an inner spring, which is preset to a specific level of compression by the manufacturer during production. The level setting depends on the type of disposable-syringe jet injector and the desired pressure and depth of delivery (for example, subcutaneous or intramuscular). In other words, some injections just need to get beneath the skin, others need to go deeper.

Photo courtesy of PATH/Patrick McKern

In the Stratis design, the spring is "charged" just by putting the device in its "Reset Station," a simple mechanical case. The Reset Station compresses the spring to the proper amount by pushing metal bars of varying lengths against it. There's no electricity involved. Once the device is charged, you literally just press a button to deliver the injection.

After pressing the button, the vaccine is delivered through a tiny opening in the tip of the syringe, roughly the width of a human hair. The pressure from the spring creates a "liquid needle" that pushes fluid through the skin, much like a regular needle minus the metal. Then the tip automatically disables, preventing reuse. This is actually a special feature because one big problem with a conventional needle and syringe is reuse and cross-contamination, which increase the risk of disease transmission between patients. By comparison, jet injector syringe tips eliminate the chance for reuse. Also, because there's no needle, there is no risk of accidental needle-stick injury for people giving the injections or disposing of sharps waste.

The Stratis was pre-qualified by the World Health Organization (WHO) this year, which means it can be purchased and used by the WHO, GAVI Alliance, and UNICEF for mass immunization efforts.

Needle-free injection has actually been around since the 1940s. If you were in the U.S. military before 1997, you probably got some shots with a multi-use nozzle jet injector, an earlier form of the technology that lacked the anti-cross-contamination features of today’s disposable-syringe jet injectors. A fictional version of the needle-free technology was also featured on Star Trek, where we know it as a hypospray.

Even Batman Uses Needle-Free Tech

Spoiler alert: if you haven't seen Batman Begins yet, this will spoil a plot point for you!

In the movie, the Scarecrow releases a toxin into Gotham's water supply. Batman has an antidote, which he delivers using a real-world technology. Specifically, Batman employs the needle-free Biojector 2000 system (yes, that's its real name), painted black and dressed up to look more Batman-ish.

The system includes a handheld delivery device, needle-free syringes containing the antidote (or vaccine, or what-have-you), and a CO2 cartridge to power the injection. In the video below, you see the syringes at 0:13, and the handheld injector near the end (partly out of frame), lying next to two syringes. This would actually be a practical way to deliver mass vaccinations to a city, while avoiding the issues of cross-contamination and needle sticks. Chalk one up for realism in comic book movies!

Even More Needle-Free Tech!

Jet injectors aren't the only way to get vaccines and similar medications into the human body—thermoresponsive gels and fast-dissolving tablets for sublingual (under the tongue) delivery are other promising needle-free technologies in the works, plus there are nasal sprays already in use (FluMist, anyone?).